It remains to be seen whether opening to the public will upend the precarious balance between chaos and chill that the young app currently enjoys.
Pandemic nights are a drag. Everything is a blur. Days of the week feel indistinguishable from each other. 6 p.m. feels like midnight this winter. No matter how much you run the clock down with activities, the specter of the old life — of house parties, bar nights, concerts, and festivals — lingers, reminding us that we are, to varying degrees, profoundly and indefinitely alone lately. Social media’s been something of a balm. Quality group chats are lifelines. Twitter is a trip now that we all “have time.” Twitch is crucial. TikTok is a vast network of time-consuming rabbit holes if you play your cards correctly. It’s much easier to be in the mix when the event is digital, but you still have to be quick on the draw to get the most of the internet. You can catch the good Twitch clips on LiveStreamFails, but that kills the element of surprise. Verzuz comments sections are a priceless substitute for the sensation of drunkenly running into friends on music-festival grounds, but it’s not as fun watching a replay as it is to follow the night as it unfolds.
Fear of missing out went digital in 2020, and there’s no better illustration of this than nights spent over the past month and a half on Clubhouse, the (currently) invite-only voice-chat app now drawing celebrities, professionals, and onlookers in the know out of seclusion and into virtual meeting grounds. Clubhouse lets users interact in themed chat rooms where speakers run the floor and listeners can raise a hand and get called on by moderators to give input on the issue of the day, like a TED Talk with a question-and-answer session in the middle. It’s in beta for now, but it’s apparent that there’s value in the concept. Venture firm Andreessen Horowitz invested $10 million in the app; Twitter has rolled out “Spaces,” its own audio-chat-room feature. But if Clubhouse’s name, and room mods’ ability to control who gets to speak, suggests a reprieve from the noise and unruliness elsewhere on the internet, what’s true of any social-media endeavor remains the same: Give people the space to talk, and they will say too much.
This was never more apparent than on the early-December night when Chet Hanks — rapper, internet personality, and son of Tom — joined Clubhouse and hosted a room where he was met with several hours of criticism for his appropriation of AAVE and Jamaican patois. It was a clinic in the value and the unpredictability of the app. Listeners miffed by his behavior could sound off knowing he would have to hear and respond, a far cry from the often one-sided experience of telling someone about themselves on Twitter or Instagram, where feisty replies can be hidden, deleted, or simply ignored, and criticism can easily disappear with a block. For Hanks, it was a space where he could be humanized to people who’d only experienced him in clips of his more tasteless videos and where he could try to explain himself and win people over by pointing out that one of his favorite books is Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. As the night dragged on, people who arrived late to the room began to rehash points and squabble among themselves — you can post rules of engagement in a room, but what you miss, you miss.
There’s no way to get a concise read on what has happened before you arrived unless people are talking it up on Twitter — which they continue to the more talk the app generates — or in a splinter room, where listeners who don’t make it past mods can talk among themselves. This happened on the Monday night this week that Azealia Banks joined and previewed music in a mostly mannered dialogue that irritated some fans, who started their own room to talk about feeling shut out of the conversation. After a while, the friend who convinced Banks to come into the first room popped into the second one to chastise everyone for hosting a counter-discussion about how they felt she deserved a better welcome. The main room was a success because Banks is a colorful, uncompromising New York character, frequently to a fault, but there were times when talk turned into prattle, and light steering might’ve helped. (Lil Mama dropping in at one point to promote new music in a room made for someone else to do that is Clubhouse being Clubhouse.)
It feels like everyone is selling something, or talking about branding, or talking themselves up as a brand; ego and the machinery of fame can get in the way of a great discussion. On the tenth anniversary of Diddy’s Last Train to Paris, the Harlem mogul joined a room on December 14 honoring the album, but the convo trailed off the subject quickly, so you heard more mention of the group who managed to make it happen — an admirable feat, admittedly — than reminiscences from the artist on the work in question. When Kevin Hart appeared in a room in late November titled “Is Kevin Hart Funny??” discussing issues like the joke in his Zero F**ks Given special about seeing “hoe-like activity” in his teenage daughter, Black women offering valid counterpoints were talked over, their criticisms drowned out by men admiring the comic. The day rap commentator and Twitch streamer Akademiks joined (two days prior to the Last Train to Paris room), salient points about his churlish coverage of violence in Chicago’s hip-hop scene were made, but the parts that made the rounds were the shouting match that ensued when Philly rapper and philanthropist Meek Mill jumped in and the surprising poise of Atlanta rapper 21 Savage in maintaining his cool in the room.
Clubhouse talks don’t necessarily end where they start or stick to their intended subject matter. Unless there’s experience with interviews and panels and a sense for when to veer a discussion back on track, it can get dicey. (It can get dicey even if a person does have hosting experience. Fox Soul’s Jason Lee’s room about heterosexual women dating bisexual men went well, with Tiffany Haddish celebrating an ex who once came out to her as bi, except for the stretch when a straight woman balked at the idea that her refusal to date men who’ve been with men might rate as homophobic. The worst part of the Banks room was when, as Banks discussed “separating the art from the artist,” a guy brought up Bill Cosby, sparking an unnecessary tangent about who still watches The Cosby Show.) Sometimes, this unpredictability is a riot. In a recent holiday-themed “moan room,” where contestants simulate sex sounds for cash prizes, TDE rapper Reason happened into unawares, was immediately made a judge, and suddenly found himself scoring random women’s sexual purring on a scale of one to ten. Actor Lakeith Stanfield was an unexpected participant in a men’s room days prior.
The app can be a place to chat shit, make connections, and talk shop; the best rooms are peaceful ones in which people commiserate over shared experiences around identity, taste, and work. A discussion about The Source brought out some of the hip-hop magazine’s venerable alumni. On Jay-Z’s birthday, December 4, Roc-A-Fella Records insiders like Just Blaze, Dame Dash, and Kyambo “Hip-Hop” Joshua shared stories about the heyday of the label and the experience of working around Jay. Beat battles give up-and-coming producers an audience with artists and industry figureheads without petitioning through email and social media. But as much as it can be a place for expressing pride in your region or country, it can also devolve into exclusivism, regionalism, and diaspora wars. As often as you might see venture capitalists of real-world renown offering business tips, or lurk on, say, Lupe Fiasco pontificating on science and music, there’s also plenty of empty motivational pablum, pseudoscience, chauvinism, colorism, shameless self-promotion, and abject mess. On one spicy evening this month, an entertainment vlogger hosted a room complaining of being sabotaged by an unnamed media figure, where speakers and listeners pieced together the actual story: that the vlogger had been caught stealing other people’s celebrity interviews through some diabolical trick of editing. True to form, the unexpected happened again, as journalists offered constructive criticism and advice on moving in media with integrity.
Clubhouse can often be a never-ending trade convention, like miles of influencer language and motivational mixers, where the best time is had when you sneak off elsewhere with friends. Ultimately, the experience is what you make it. If you’re a media figure of mild infamy — like Chet Hanks or Christie Smythe, former Bloomberg crime reporter who revealed she had quit to date Martin Shkreli, then popped in for a quick Q&A on Clubhouse, and dipped before it got too smoky — there is a chance to rinse your reputation and to get people to see a dimensionality in you that’s a little harder to relay through posts and captions. If you’re a fan of music, it’s a playground where you can learn the game, debate about eras, and maybe speak with your favorite artist. If you’re selling or promoting anything, there’s a sea of public relations and entrepreneurial specialists at your disposal. (Just be sure to check up on those credentials.) If you love mess, you won’t be disappointed.
It remains to be seen whether opening to the public will upend the precarious balance between chaos and chill that the young app currently enjoys; whether the many celebrity regulars will stick when the exclusivity wears off and anyone can log in and call them out for takes that aren’t necessarily very deeply considered; and, most important, whether or not we’re only interested in an audio app that is, on a certain level, replicating the experience of meeting strangers on ’90s chat lines primarily because we’re all stranded at home and lonely. The new “Creator Pilot Program” being tested suggests that there is interest in building careers on Clubhouse. That said, everything that stands to make the app more accessible also runs the risk of making the experience feel less unique. Such is the way of the internet.
*A version of this article appears in the January 4, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!